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Is genuine altruism possible?

 
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Sat 8 Nov, 2003 09:53 am
twyvel wrote:

This dialogue may be a perfect example of what you're trying to say. You want a common understanding of "altruism" (so do I), but you're not willing to suggest any means of getting there. Are you saying that it's not possible to reach a common understanding?

twyvel wrote:
That I think what I think is indisputable.

For the sake of argument, I'll agree.

twyvel wrote:
A belief that god exists is not mistaken if the truth is unknown.

According to that reasoning, a belief in unicorns or ghosts is also not mistaken.

twyvel wrote:
If I say altruism doesn't't exist I'm not wrong if my definition and understanding of what altruism is cannot be found to be applicable to any human behavior.

Quite right. So what's your definition?

twyvel wrote:

On what basis can you make that determination?

If I say of two definitions of X -- X(1) and X(2) -- "X(1) is right and X(2) is wrong," then I am relying on a standard for judging the rightness or wrongness of a definition as it applies to Xs in general. If, on the other hand, I say "X(1) and X(2) are equally valid," then I am relying on a standard for judging the rightness or wrongness of a definition as it applies to the notion of validity. Just because you eschew a definitional choice as to a thing does not mean that you eschew definitional choices. Or, as Sartre would put it: "not to choose is to choose."
0 Replies
 
twyvel
 
  1  
Reply Sat 8 Nov, 2003 08:58 pm
joefromchicago

Quote:
This dialogue may be a perfect example of what you're trying to say. You want a common understanding of "altruism" (so do I), but you're not willing to suggest any means of getting there. Are you saying that it's not possible to reach a common understanding?


No, Joe. I am saying if we are presently discussing altruism we already have a common understanding.

Re: your opening statement:

Can someone ever perform a truly altruistic act?

Say, for instance, Rescuer sees a stranger, Victim, in the middle of a lake, flailing helplessly and clearly in distress. Without assistance, it is clear that Victim will drown. Rescuer dives into the lake and drags Victim to safety. Can we say that Rescuer acted completely selflessly? Or is there always some element of self-interest involved in even the noblest altruistic act?


Presupposses a common (universal) understanding.

Altruism as a shared concept is not under question here, but only its extention, degrees and/or application etc.


Quote:
A belief that god exists is not mistaken if the truth is unknown.

Quote:
According to that reasoning, a belief in unicorns or ghosts is also not mistaken.


Correct.


Quote:
Just because you eschew a definitional choice as to a thing does not mean that you eschew definitional choices. Or, as Sartre would put it: "not to choose is to choose."



Right.

I do not think there exists one correct altruism, or if there does it has a series of clauses attached to it.
0 Replies
 
cicerone imposter
 
  1  
Reply Sat 8 Nov, 2003 11:04 pm
Altruism is possible. Give me all of your valuables, and I'll be witness to the fact that 'you' have altruism.
0 Replies
 
step314
 
  1  
Reply Wed 19 Nov, 2003 12:24 pm
An unselfish act is a sacrifice, but to be unselfish, not.
Evolution and the existence of unselfish people only suggests that it is mostly unreasonable to suppose that being unselfish is an evolutionary disadvantage. But if altruistic people have an advantage over non-altruistic people, that does not imply that the acts of altruism are advantageous (in an evolutionary sense) to those who make them. Being the type of person who is willing when it is morally appropriate to make sacrifices is IMO advantageous. But the altruistic acts themselves are by definition not selfish. A good person gains not by sacrificing, but by being the sort of person who is willing to make sacrifices.

Unselfish people tend to love unselfishly fellow unselfish people rather than people in general. Accordingly, inasmuch as character can be judged fairly well, unselfish people are loved more unselfishly than selfish people, and so they can prosper better.

Also, people can be patriotic citizens. Patriotic citizens will treat patriotic citizens better than they will treat non-patriotic selfish citizens. Probably to a lesser extent than altruism from particular love, this general unselfishness tendency also is probably judgeable, and so can evolve to a certain extent without group competition. This would appear to be the case with the rescuer of the drowning airplane passenger. To a certain extent living is a team sport requiring an unselfish community. If the fireman knew the person to be rescued was selfish and anti-social, yeah, he perhaps would have let him or her drown if he were a typical hero. I can imagine if I were in battle I'd be a good deal more loath to risk myself saving someone I knew to be selfish and unpatriotic. As to someone I felt was patriotic (the default assumption), it would perhaps be right for me to put my life on the line for him in battle if that was the militarily correct thing to do, even if I disliked him personally; it probably is not good to do it if I feel I'm better than him, but it's good for good people to be team players to a certain extent, and I believe they are such. I suppose you could define things so that it is good to be such as to at (rare) times do the "bad" (but nevertheless "right" in my ontology) thing.

Altruism is not a tit-for-tat phenomenon. In fact, IMO the most important altruism tends to be that which a loving person can have for a well-loved mate, and such is rather the opposite of tit-for-tat. If a woman sacrificially refuses to mate from love of money rather than from romantic love, she by definition won't get the resources she otherwise would. Similarly, it is more unselfish for a man to care well for a well-loved woman than to expend much effort chasing mistresses. In these two important cases, it is the behavior that less appears tit-for-tat which is the altruistic one.

Actually, in some respects it isn't even reasonable from a simplistic evolutionary standpoint to suppose people behave in their own interests. For example, a genetic crossover on average gives an expected benefit to the genetic material near the crossover, and an expected loss to genetic material distant from the crossover (short-term benefits are less likely from genetic recombination than short-term losses). Thus, genes presumably tend to encourage a rate of genetic crossover that typically produces more crosses than is in the interest of the person whose gametes are crossed-over.

Saying that unselfishness is selfish because it produces desired internal emotions seems kind of silly and pie-in-the-sky. Mostly, people don't profit by emotions but by tangible rewards. There could be a slight truth, though. Males, for instance, could by being sad from feeling they are of more worth than they have been treated, reduce genetic crossover in spermatogenesis, which reduction I believe pleases females sexually; thus sadness is an attitude that could likely be something of a rewarding girl-magnet. But, again, I would argue that a person can know whether he is of heroic nature without actually having had the occasion to do something heroic. And I can't see any reason to suppose that genes would evolve so as to allow people at the genes' expense to be selfish in what emotion they possess.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Nov, 2003 09:56 am
Re: An unselfish act is a sacrifice, but to be unselfish, no
step314, you've provided a lot of material to chew on in your lengthy, well-reasoned post. Let me just address a few points:
step314 wrote:
Evolution and the existence of unselfish people only suggests that it is mostly unreasonable to suppose that being unselfish is an evolutionary disadvantage. But if altruistic people have an advantage over non-altruistic people, that does not imply that the acts of altruism are advantageous (in an evolutionary sense) to those who make them. Being the type of person who is willing when it is morally appropriate to make sacrifices is IMO advantageous. But the altruistic acts themselves are by definition not selfish. A good person gains not by sacrificing, but by being the sort of person who is willing to make sacrifices.

I think I understand your position here, but I wonder how we can separate the altruistic person from the altruistic acts. If a person is inclined to altruism, but performs no such acts, how can we truly say that the person is altruistic? And if it is the altruistic inclination that provides an evolutionary advantage, how can that inclination be demonstrated to others (which, presumably, is a necessary attribute for any evolutionary trait) without performing altruistic acts?
step314 wrote:
Altruism is not a tit-for-tat phenomenon. In fact, IMO the most important altruism tends to be that which a loving person can have for a well-loved mate, and such is rather the opposite of tit-for-tat.

Of course, altruism is typically viewed as a non-mutual exchange: the altruist gives without receiving anything in return, or at least does not receive any sort of in-kind compensation. If I rescue you from drowning, I do not thereby require you to rescue me from drowning.
step314 wrote:
Saying that unselfishness is selfish because it produces desired internal emotions seems kind of silly and pie-in-the-sky. Mostly, people don't profit by emotions but by tangible rewards.

What about the anonymous altruist?
step314 wrote:
There could be a slight truth, though. Males, for instance, could by being sad from feeling they are of more worth than they have been treated, reduce genetic crossover in spermatogenesis, which reduction I believe pleases females sexually; thus sadness is an attitude that could likely be something of a rewarding girl-magnet.

A socio-biological justification of the metrosexual phenomenon.
0 Replies
 
step314
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Nov, 2003 02:41 pm
How altruism can be gauged.
joefromchicago wrote:
I think I understand your position here, but I wonder how we can separate the altruistic person from the altruistic acts. If a person is inclined to altruism, but performs no such acts, how can we truly say that the person is altruistic?


It would be difficult to judge altruism directly if it weren't possible to judge it indirectly, by there being a trait easily judged that has a strong correlation with an ability to deceive as to character. As I mentioned in my previous post, the most important altruism involves mating. A male by being unselfish rewards a mate by allowing them to have more children than they otherwise would have (on account of him not squandering money, resources, time, etc., on merely selfish activities). Similarly, a female by being unselfish can reward her mate by enabling him to have more of their children than they otherwise would have (by, say, mating with him without requiring much out of him by the way of resources, as would be necessary, say, if he is poor or married to someone else). Because these, the most important rewards, are rewards through mutual children, there arises a correlation between deceptive ability and the insensitivity that makes one vulnerable to being deceived. So, yes, a deceptive individual might profit by deception, enabling himself or herself to have more children than otherwise, but these extra children will tend to be insensitive, inheriting the trait of the duped, likely insensitive parent. And sensitivity, unlike moral character or an ability to deceive, is obviously easy to judge directly--just judge how much insight the individual to be judged has as to your own qualities, which you presumably know better than anybody. So by good people appreciating and judging not just an impression of moral goodness but also sensitivity, it is reasonable to suppose that goodness will evolve better than an ability to deceive.

Any way, treating people differently on the basis of subjective character judgments ideally should be something restricted mostly to mating decisions. That's presumably part of the reason courts of law try so hard to be objective and why people often say it is wrong to judge people. But it is not wrong to judge others in mating decisions; in fact it is wrong not to do so, since these sorts of judgments are what really drive the evolution of moral goodness.

Quote:
Of course, altruism is typically viewed as a non-mutual exchange
Yes, right. Some philosophers might say I should use the word "normative", but really I hate that word because it sounds too much like "normal", and much of what is normal is immoral, unfortunately.

I guess I risk being misunderstood about what I was saying about emotions. Mostly I just wanted to point out that there is no particular reason why wanting a particular emotion should be more selfish than wanting a particular event to occur. That's mostly a female idea, I suppose. If you're screwed up, that can affect your emotions and if you believe these emotions, that can cause you to hurt unjustly those you otherwise wouldn't hurt. But you aren't really being unselfish, just stupid. The person who gains is not likely to be you (though your loss probably will be less than that of the guy you otherwise would have loved), but rather the scoundrel who screwed you up. So that is not so much unselfishness as stupidity. But because the person hurt the most is perhaps not likely to be the screwed up person (at least if the screwed up person is female), but some other person, in a way females tend to view being screwed-up correctly as being heartless and therefore incorrectly as being selfish.
0 Replies
 
twyvel
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Nov, 2003 03:39 pm
step314
Quote:
Saying that unselfishness is selfish because it produces desired internal emotions seems kind of silly and pie-in-the-sky. Mostly, people don't profit by emotions but by tangible rewards.


What you call "tangible rewards", are not rewards they are the means to them. The "reward", the 'profit' is emotional.
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rufio
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Nov, 2003 09:39 pm
JL, I returned to your post and I agree with it. Meaning does not come with reality. I've never said that. Meaning exists, but only as people dictate it should. Probably they are only cultural. I am just saying that the universe exists in the same way whatever we think about it.
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JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Nov, 2003 10:11 pm
truth
Rufio, I agree. Whatever is the case, is the case. And our perception of what portion of it we are in touch with is predominantly (but not wholly) culturally fashioned and acquired. As an anthropology student you'd probably agree. Thanks for the very civil post.
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rufio
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 Nov, 2003 11:59 pm
Glad to finally have that cleared up. The other thing is, everything that exists is knowABLE, even though not everything is known. It is, for instance, possible to predict without a doubt whether or not the sun will rise tommorrow morning, but since there are an infinite number of things that could affect the sun rising, it would take us an infinite amount of time to identify them all.
0 Replies
 
step314
 
  1  
Reply Fri 21 Nov, 2003 12:44 am
rewards emotional?
Quote:
What you call "tangible rewards", are not rewards they are the means to them. The "reward", the 'profit' is emotional.


That seems an unnecessary complication out of touch with standard usage--rather like saying that a book can contain no information because all there is in a book is ink patterns and ink patterns are not information. Just because unselfishness like most anything else that people do is mediated by emotion doesn't make unselfishness non-existent. True, doing a good thing because that good thing seems beautiful to you and your nature is to do what your emotions consider beautiful is different from doing a good thing from a dry intellectual consideration that if you do a good thing your emotions will become more beautiful or desirable to you. Again, though, I fail to see why the latter sort of motivation would be selfish or morally bothersome even if it were the typical explanation for unselfish behavior ( I don't think it is). One can doubtless think of an unselfish person as being led by unselfish emotions. Similarly, one can think of an unselfish person as being led by wanting intellectually to make the world more beautiful, where beauty is a real concept. But to mix the two points of view, by for instance saying that so-called unselfish people do what they think intellectually will create the "unselfish" emotions they want seems a needless complexity that rather views people as more divorced from reality than most are; but again, if some people were best viewed that way, I still don't see why that would render them selfish.
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